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Virtual Amazonian Monkeys Reproduce Shakespeare

Posted by Josh Rothman  September 29, 2011 08:43 AM

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How long would it take a million monkeys bashing away on a million keyboards to reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare? Not long, as it turns out: Using "virtual monkeys," Jesse Anderson, a computer programmer from Nevada, has reproduced 99.9% of Shakespeare's work -- and his monkeys have only been at it since August 21.

Anderson's monkeys are computer programs; though they run on his home computer, they borrow their processing power, perhaps ironically, from Amazon.com, which sells time on its high-powered servers through a service called S3. Every second, the "Amazonian monkeys" bash out many nine-letter chunks of text; those nine-letter chunks are then compared to Shakespeare's plays. When all of the nine-letter chunks in a play have been randomly generated, then the play has been successfully reproduced. On his website, Anderson explains that he got the idea from an episode of The Simpsons, in which Mr. Burns has an army of monkeys hard at work trying to reproduce Dickens. (In fact, it's a very old idea: Cicero, arguing against the philosophical concept of atomism, wrote that you "may as well believe that if a great quantity of the one-and-twenty letters... were thrown upon the ground, they would fall into such order as legibly to form the Annals of Ennius.")

Shakespeare-monkey purists, naturally, will complain that this isn't what people have in mind when they talk about monkeys and Shakespeare: Anderson's monkeys aren't really reproducing Shakespeare, but just nine-letter-long strings of text that happen, also, to be in Shakespeare's ouevre. It would take a monkey much longer to reproduce, by chance, all of Hamlet at one go. Still, as Nick Collins of the Telegraph points out, Anderson's experiment has gone much better than the last attempt, at England's Plymouth University in 2003: "Six Sulawesi crested macaques," he writes, "produced five pages of text, mainly composed of the letter S, but failed to type anything close to a word of English, broke the computer and used the keyboard as a lavatory."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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